Archives: The Incan Terraces

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: Terraces⏤the opposite of ramps?


The Inca are surely one of my favorite ancient cultures. Much of this is due to the unusual amount of research available on their building techniques and architecture. The pieces of their engineering I've been reading about lately are their terraces.

Terraces might be something of an opposite of ramps, but that just makes them more fascinating. Living among some of the steepest mountains in the world, the Incans had to improvise heavily when it came to all sorts of facets of their life. Their terraces did a lot more than provide flat areas for food production (though don't get me wrong: that was just a little bit important); they also helped to control erosion and landslides.

In fact, much of Incan architecture was built to be earthquake resistant, and the terraces were no exception. They were so well built that, despite the Incan's comparatively low technological level, their terraces survived from Pizarro's conquest of their empire, totally forgotten, all the way up to the twentieth century, when they were rediscovered.

Do you think anything we build today would last that long without maintenance? Not likely. This workmanship stretched all the way through their construction, too.

The Incans by no means had a monopoly on agricultural terraces, of course. Terrace farming has arisen independently in dozens of cultures worldwide, with almost as many individual styles. It's almost certainly the most efficient method of farming in the mountains.

The most famous are almost certainly the rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras: they've actually been declared a UNESCO heritage site. You've almost certainly seen images of them before. They've been farmed continuously for something like 2000 years, which is absolutely crazy. That's not just architecture, it's a way of life.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: The Power of Powder

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy writes his own cautionary tale of sorts: some seemingly sci-fi tale of producing a yard ramp with a 3-D printer.

Click HERE to read all about it.

From the Archives: Ancient Ramp Construction

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week I explore the earliest civilizations that built with⏤ surprise ⏤ ramps.


Information on the Internet about the construction of the great cities and monuments of the Mesoamerican and South American cultures is surprisingly hard to find, it turns out.

McCoy Fields: Relatively Young Dude

Not So Ancient: Me

The Aztecs were real tricky to find stuff on. Almost every supposed "source" detailing its construction techniques immediately starts going on about how they sacrificed people during construction, then doesn't bother to actually discuss the techniques they used. I'm no trained historian, but that seems like sensationalism to me, and it sure doesn't answer my questions.

There are a few interesting tidbits out there, though. Teotihuacan, one of the major Aztec sites, was actually constructed over a thousand years before the Aztecs gained power, by someone else entirely.

The Inca and Mayan empires have a bit more out there to easily find. I had to dig through a lot of nonsense about Mayan prophecies and their mass disappearance, but there was a lot of good stuff. Like this: They actually used a primitive form of limestone-based concrete for much of their construction.

That First Step is a Doozy

One Small Step for a Spring Chicken

The Incans were the easiest to find information on, since most of the stuff on the Internet is about their construction techniques anyhow. Their buildings were famed for being constructed of huge stone blocks in irregular patterns that for together perfectly, without gaps. You can't even stick a knife between the stones.

People go crazy over that, some even going so far as to say that there were aliens helping the Incans. (Some nuts out there.) I think it says more about contractors today than it does about ancient construction. Tight seams just take good workmanship.

The stones in Incan constructions were placed by dragging them up huge earthen ramps on log rollers. Interestingly enough, they took the opposite approach to the ramps than the Egyptians, who just put together giant straight ramps. The reason they could do that when the Egyptians couldn't is pretty simple: the Incan Empire was huge. It was basically the Rome of South America. It could afford to just throw manpower at problems until they were solved.

They did save a little money by using locally quarried limestone or granite, but the empire was wealthy and powerful enough that it could have shipped them halfway across Peru on their excellent system of roads if the whim overtook them. We have tons of archaeological evidence for the Incan ramps, and a few—even still—partially exist.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: (Fork) Lifting Toward 2020

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy begins his blog with a quotation from Oscar Wilde. That's all I really needed. And then his blog just got better and better.

Read his consistently fine perspective HERE.

From the Archives: Ramps, Allium & Google

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. Back now to ramps, one of my favorite inventions...


In the family of quality ramps.

Wild Leeks

You know the first thing I see when I Google "ramps"? (Ignoring those constant ads, of course). A Wikipedia article on ramps. It's a pretty well researched and detailed article, too, listing all sorts of uses for ramps, their discovery and history, even festivals dedicated to them!

The only problem, though, isn't about inclined planes. It's about a plant. Specifically: Allium tricoccum, also known as wild leeks.

So when you Google one of the most important inventions in human history—one of the basic simple machines that makes civilization work—you get a smelly weed that some people like to eat. Maybe it's just me: I think the invention that allowed us to build the pyramids is a little more important than a backyard pest that makes food smell like old socks.

At least if you search on Wikipedia itself, inclined planes are the first thing to pop up. Whoever runs that site seems to know what they're doing, unlike those culinary-minded dudes at Google. It's all that time inside, I'm telling you. It's not healthy. You need fresh air and sunlight every day, so you don't end up drooling over random greenery from your yard.

A refreshing beverage helps the thinking.

That's me, thinking about ramps.

And no, this rant wasn't inspired by the new diet Maggie is putting me on. It's a legitimate complaint. I mean, I don't mind cutting back on red meat even more. I like fish and poultry just fine. I hardly drink more than a beer or two anymore, and I've been watching my cholesterol since my bypass 15 years ago.

I really just think that it's not going to hurt me to eat proper vegetables you find in the grocery store, not expensive health food store stuff I could pull out of my neighbor's yard.

(The one without the dogs, at least. Nice dogs, but I'm not eating anything out of that yard.)

That's not the point, though. I just think that Google is doing inclined planes a real disservice.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Success in Yard Ramp Industrials

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy's big wheels keep on turning with a great riff on the importance of attention to detail.

Dig into the specifics HERE.

On Living Bridges

I've blogged a lot about bridges, I know (Sir Bridges Blog-a-Lot, eh?) but I haven't yet explored living bridges.

Meghalaya, a state in north-eastern India, is one of the wettest places in the world, getting close to 500 inches of rainfall a year. Almost three-quarters of the state is forested. One of the indigenous tribes living there, the War-Khasi, build living foot bridges from the roots of the Ficus elastica — a variety of rubber tree.

thebridgePhoto by Arshiya Urveeja Bose [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

To grow the bridges, the Khasis create root guidance systems out of halved and hollowed betel nut trunks. The roots are channeled to the other side of the river, where they are allowed to bury themselves in the soil on that side.

The bridges take 10 to 15 years to grow strong enough for regular use; once they do, they last incredible amounts of time with no maintenance: since they're still growing, they actually continue to grow stronger and stronger over time. Some of the older bridges are five centuries old. Many of the older, stronger bridges can support 50 or more people at once.

mfthoughtThe most famous of the bridges, the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge, is actually two of those bridges, with one stacked directly over the other. Local dedication to the art has kept the bridges alive and prevented them from being replaced with steel. (Steel, frankly—and with all respect to those dealing with, ahem, yard ramps—don't have anything near the lifespan of the root bridges and aren't nearly as sturdy.)

The root bridges aren't the only living bridges around. In the Iya Valley in Japan, there are bridges woven out of living wisteria vines. They're much less common, and only three remain. They're built by growing immense lengths of wisteria on each side of the river before weaving them together—a process that must be repeated once every three years.

These wisteria bridges are much less sturdy than the Khasi root bridges, with wooden planks spaced over seven inches apart, and they apparently shake wildly while you're on them. By all accounts, these things are terrifying to cross, which makes sense: they’re widely thought to have been designed originally for defense. The original bridges didn't even have railings.

Grading Kinds of Grating

Everyone knows what bridge grating looks like. It’s seemingly part of everything—from stairs to ladders to ramps to fire escapes to flooring. You know this: the stuff that comes in four-foot by eight-foot panels.

Grating is easy to clean (it doesn't get dirty, really), allows light to permeate a space easily, makes a fantastic drain cover, and weighs relatively little for its strength. It's a pretty basic and essential part of construction.

aluminum

What most people don't consider, though, is its composition. Not all gratings are made of the usual, default-mode steel. Like all matters involving construction, there are very specific trade-offs that need to be made in choosing your material.

Yes, steel gratings are easily the most common: strong, not too heavy, and not too expensive. There's a lot to be said for sticking to the old classics. You know what you're dealing with.

Aluminum is the next most-common material and is usually present in structures that need to minimize weight. These gratings tend to show up in ships and, on occasion, airplanes.

One of the less common materials for grating is fiberglass. (Actually, fiberglass is reinforced plastic, but let’s not get too picky.) Made through a pultrusion process, fiberglass-reinforced plastic grating (or FRP grating) is non-corrodible, unlike steel or aluminum gratings.

weldedThis makes the fiberglass type ideal for environments filled with corrosive chemicals or gases; chemical plants are one obvious setting for them, depending on the plant. Another is geothermal generating stations, which tend to have sulfur and other chemical deposits accumulating on everything.

Material isn't everything, either. You need to choose the joints in the grating with care. Welded joints, the most popular, provide both strength and lightness and are good enough for most projects.

Also to consider: the size of the gaps in the grating. If your inventory features lots of small objects, it might make sense to use a heavier grate with much closer meshing. Tends to keep things from falling through.

(I need to invent a personal, portable grating system that I can use whenever I take my house keys and car keys somewhere. Maggie, of course, would just hand me the colander she uses to drain pasta.)